Not only about physical sex: Giving erotica its due (Book Review)

Title: The Pleasure Principle – The Amaryllis Book of Erotic Stories; Editor: G. Sampath Kumar; Publisher: Amaryllis; Pages: 244; Price: Rs 350

Modern Indians have a curious relation with erotica, despite being from a civilization that celebrated it and elevated it into an art form, if not inventing it outright. They may enjoy it, but surreptitiously and be embarrassed to admit it. This may be because of its intimate connection with sex, which has no shortages of taboos, and a perception that considers it just an account of sexual intercourse. They couldn’t be more wrong.

And this anthology offers some convincing proof.

Out of its 15 stories, including by renowned authors as well as emerging writers – almost none of which has even dabbled in the genre before this, just about half even have a sex scene – real or imagined, and even out of this, three just hint at it or render it quite obliquely.

The basic thrust is to present a broad palette of erotica, not limited to sex in its physical form but embracing a whole gamut of connected situations and emotions, especially curiosity, by Indian authors – mostly.

As editor Sampath Kumar, who confesses he is “by nature allergic to rules or expectations of any kind”, says, leave alone political correctness, he even broke “the easiest and most obvious expectation to fulfil – of picking only Indian (or Indian-origin) writes for an Indian anthology being brought out by an Indian publisher for an Indian readership”.

And Kristen Cosby of San Francisco, included “for no reason or logic whatsover other than I loved her story”, justifies her presence with her “The Baker of Milna” giving you an entirely new insight into why some bakery products are sinfully tempting.

Sampath Kumar, who, in his introduction, also offers a reasoned and persuasive assessment of why erotica is shunned publicly, what baser embodiment of sex has taken its place in our public space and why we need another volume of erotic stories, contends with some critics deeming the genre it “low brow”, he had chosen not to rely on “erotic specialists” but “writers with a serious amount of literary work behind them”, and the last, save a couple, who could imagine themselves writing it.

And there was no specific plan to make the book “suitably inclusive” by ensuring a “lesbian-themed story” or a “homo-erotic one” or a “transgender narrative”, as many advised, but the choice left to the contributors, who include Taslima Nasrin, Amitava Kumar, Cyrus Mistry, Rupa Bajwa and Jaishree Mishra.

A few didn’t find the going easy, he says, but all of them ultimately delivered.

Nasrin sets the ball rolling with “Sexboy”, a mould-breaking story of what happens when a couple indulging in long-distance sex meet face to face, while Jaishree Mishra’s “Naked Cleaning Lady”, is evocatively powerful but different and ends on a note of redemption – of a sort.

And while Mistry’s tale of a elderly teacher who decides to indulge in long-suppressed desires is disturbing as is Shinie Anthony’s “Thy Will Be Done”, Kankana Basu’s “Graveyard Shift” will create a frisson – though it may not be the one you were expecting – down to the final twist.

On the other hand, Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Meena Kandasamy offer witty and subversive entries, with the latter also a tongue(firmly)-in-cheek dissection of the cultural nationalism in vogue now.

Quite a few deal with adolescence – Amitava Kumar’s “Harsingar” is an atmospheric tale of sexual awakening and competition in Patna, Vikram Kapur’s “First Kiss” (where unexpectedly key action occurs in a bookshop – understandable when you realise it happened in the past), Tabish Khair’s “The House Help” but holding its own is Aditya Sharma’s “Chunni Lal”, which is also an indictment of an Indian male’s hypocritical view of sex – and his comeuppance.

Rupa Bajwa’s “The Last House”, Amrita Chatterjee’s “The Real Sex” and Mitali Saran’s “Insomnia” are not so easily categorised but no less memorable for that.

The Amaryllis anthology is by no means the first – Tranquebar and some others began the trend- but it well holds its own through its diversity, capacity to surprise and impress, but most importantly, an impassioned and reasoned defence of the genre.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )



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